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Problematic Favorites: A Little Princess - Part 9 The Ill-Used Heroine

Wednesday, April 13, 2016 - 07:45

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

Chapter 5 introduces Becky, the scullery maid. I think it’s a virtue of Burnett’s writing that she is able to portray Sara as being less essentialist about Becky’s nature and character than Burnett herself seems to be. While the narrative descriptions of Becky regularly focus on her timid and fearful personality (well, duh! when she could be dismissed from her position on a whim) and portray her as worshipping Sara as a near-goddess, not merely a princess, in Sara’s interactions with Becky, she treats her as nearly as an equal as their respective positions allow. And Sara’s kindness and charity to Becky are usually sensitive to what Becky herself wants and needs, not simply what will make Sara feel good. Still, there are a lot of wince-worthy moments around Becky.

The chapter begins by returning to Sara’s love of storytelling and how it was one of the behaviors that gave her social status among the other students. She not only makes up stories but acts them out in the telling, drawing the listeners into her imaginative fantasy worlds of fairies, mermaids, kings, and queens.

And then, in the midst of this, we switch to Sara’s observation of a new servant at the school, seen from a distance as Sara is getting out of her carriage “wrapped in velvets and furs”. Becky is working around the area steps (the lower front entrance to a townhouse, used by servants) and staring at her as if she were a vision from another world--which, in fact, Sara might as well be.

The first of the cringe-worthy moments comes in the first description of Becky as “a dingy little figure”, but more to the point, in that first descriptive paragraph, Becky (whose name we don’t know yet) is referred to as “it” three times. Now, this isn’t a matter of gender uncertainty--clothing is highly gendered in this era and even if Becky’s face were obscured it would have been instantly obvious that she was female. There seems no useful reason for this “it”-ing, especially given that the narrative switches to female pronouns in the next paragraph. If I were looking for deep meaning, I’d suggest that the change in pronouns represents the near-instant process of Sara recognizing Becky as a unique and individual human being, but if so, it still feels like a slap in the face to do that by means of literal objectifying at first.

Becky’s initial reticence is played as humorous in the narration, by virtue of noting that Sara does not laugh at the way she pops out of side like a jack-in-the-box, because she feels pity instead. And this is only the beginning of the divergence between Sara’s attitude and the narrative position. Later that day, while Sara is telling a story to a group of other girls, Becky comes in to tend to the fire and becomes so enraptured by listening to the story that she stops working to listen. Sara, noticing this, projects her voice more clearly to make sure that Becky can hear the story too and, when Lavinia (who, as usual, represents the archetypal Mean Girl) also notices and scolds Becky out of the room, Sara defends her right to listen.

Mariette, Sara’s French maid, fills her in on the details of Becky’s life, including her name, and communicates that she considers Becky to be unusually put-upon and burdened with all the hardest work of the school. (I rather suspect the nature of Becky’s position wasn’t at all unusual.) And after this, Sara makes a point of noticing and observing Becky around the school and turns her into a character in a story (presumably one she doesn’t share with the other girls) in which Becky is an “ill-used heroine”, presaging the role they both will share later in the book.